Did Rome Know About Japan?

Further ReadingWhat The Romans Called China

Every year new evidence is uncovered that the Roman Empire knew of several countries in the far east. In the early 2,000’s historians uncovered a series of reports that demonstrated that the Romans knew of China. However, the question remains; did Rome know about Japan?

Up until 2016 all evidence pointed to the answer of no, the Roman Empire did not know about Japan. However, in the summer of 2016 a horde of 5th century AD Roman coins were found at a Japanese castle located in Okinawa. As a result of this discovery there is a chance that Rome and Japan knew of each other from trade.

It is important to remember that Rome considered everyone outside of their borders as barbarians. To Rome everybody east of Persia was considered part of the Sinae or Serica country. This was the land of China which Rome knew as the land of silk. It’s possible that Rome mistook Japan as part of China due to trading relations between the people.

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Without further ado, here is an article diving into detail on the question on whether or not the Romans knew about Japan.

Roman Trading Expeditions With The East During The 4th Century

7th century meeting between a Roman embassy and the Chinese Emperor

While Rome had known of the people of the east since the late Republic and early Empire there was little interaction. The only primary source that we have from the early empire that mentions Latins interacting with the Eastern people comes from the writings of Lucius Annaeus Florus.

Florus who lived during the early 2nd century AD wrote that when Augustus created the Roman Empire people from all over the known world came to pay their respects. The usual culprits showed up such as the German tribes and the Scythians would pay their respects. However, what is unique about this passage is a mention of the Seres people arriving in Rome.

This means that Rome knew of China and the east during the time of the early Empire. However, chances are at this point they did not know of Japan. However, this would change by the time of the 3rd century AD.

During the 3rd century AD Rome would send several tributary gifts to the Chinese to encourage a growth of trade. During the 3rd century Rome would begin to send two expeditions to the east. The first expedition (estimated 220-266 AD) was to the three kingdom court of Cao Wei. This expedition brought several “fire-crystals” which fascinated the Chinese people. This was Roman glass.

The second expedition (estimated 284 AD) came after the 3 kingdom period in China which ended unification of China under the Jin Empire. Not much is known about this expedition but that it was most likely sent by Roman Emperor Carus in 282 AD to foster continued trade.

During this same time Roman merchants were also engaging in trade with the people of modern Vietnam and Cambodia. We have little primary source evidence for these claims but in the late 90’s and early 2,000’s several archeological excavations uncovered evidence supporting the claim that 3rd century Romans did in fact trade in the region.

So why do these trading expeditions with China matter if we are talking about Rome knowing Japan? Well because we first need to establish that it was possible that Rome was operating in the seas surrounding China during the 4th century AD.

Rome was a certainty in the seas surrounding Japan during the 4th century AD. Next we will look at evidence demonstrating that Rome did interact with Japan in some capacity.

4th Century AD Roman Coins Ending Up At Japanese Castle In Okinawa

Image credit: Image comes from Google Maps all credit goes to them for providing amazing software.
All credit for this map goes to Google maps. Google, 2022, Location of Roman coins found in Japan, 600×282, available through Google maps.

So the Romans were operating in the seas surrounding China during the 3rd/4th century AD.

As previously mentioned before 2016 historians would tell you that it was impossible that Rome would have known of Japan. Roman travelers were thought to have stopped traveling eastward once they got to Vietnam or China.

However, in 2016 a field team of archeologists made an amazing discovery. They uncovered several Roman coins which were carbon dated to the dates of the 3rd/4th century AD. These are the exact dates that the Roman traders were operating in the seas surrounding Japan.

10 Roman coins were uncovered from the grounds outside the ancient castle ruins of Katsuren on the Japanese island of Okinawa. This was a stunning find and the researchers on the ground couldn’t believe what they found. For historians of both ancient Rome and ancient Japan this changed everything.

During the 4th century AD the Island of Okinawa was not controlled by Japan. Japan itself was not even unified with only the southern end being controlled by the 16th emperor of Japan, Emperor Nintoku.

If Rome had interacted with the island of Okinawa during the 4th century AD it would have been with the native Ryukyuan people who lived on the Island. Today these people are considered to be ancestors of Japan although there is much debate surrounding this claim within Japan.

It is possible that Roman merchants traveled into the eastern seas looking for easier routes to get to China to trade for silk during the 4th century AD. Along the way they certainty would have begun to run into a series of Islands which today belong to Japan.

Unfortunately not many primary sources from Roman merchants survive to this day. Only the elite of Roman society would write histories and stories. These people tended to not be part of the merchant or laboring class but rather wealthy landowners. In spite of that however we do have some primary source evidence for the explorations of Rome to the far east by sea.

2nd Century AD Roman Maps Depicting The Eastern Seas Surrounding China

Much of our primary source evidence surrounding Rome’s knowledge of the east is lost. However, in the 2nd century AD a Roman geographer and historian named Claudius Ptolemy wrote a book that detailed all Roman knowledge of the earth up to that point.

His book would be copied by medieval scribes and those copies have survived to this modern day. In these copies of Ptolemy’s work are several maps which present a view of the lands beyond India.

In the above image we can see modern Europe and Italy in the west. From here there are several roads and rivers outlined that will transport a person to the east where they can conduct trade. On the far right of the image is Ptolemy’s drawing of China. This was called the land of Sinea, or silk.

In the above image from the Greek geographer Eratosthenes we can see his map ends with the island of Taprobana, which is modern Sri Lanka. The first image of Ptololmy’s map goes much further to modern Cambodia and Vietnam. The furthest right of it shows what the Roman’s called the Magnus Sinea or the Large Silk Sea.

However, the below map goes into even further detail which lies to the furthest east of Roman knowledge.

This above map from Ptolmy comes from the 2nd century AD. This map demonstrates the furthest east Roman’s knew of. On the left side of the map you see the Indian ocean with the islands of Andaman and Nicobar labeled as “Indicvm Pelagvs.”

To the right of those Islands you have a peninsula which is modern Malaysia. We know of this because Ptolomy highlights a trading town called Sabana which is modern day Singapore.

To the right of Singapore on Ptolomy’s map is the Magna Simea or the sea of silk. What is interesting is that Ptolomy continues to depict land which is further past this sea. He calls this region the land of Sine Ethiopes. This is highly interesting as it depicts a land that is completely different from China.

In the above map Sine is clearly marked in the top right corner surrounding the Magna Simea Sea. To the bottom right of the map is a new land which existed further than Sin or the Serica people. According to the Romans this could very well be the land of Japan.

Conclusion

There you have it; an entire article going over the question of weather or not the Romans knew of Japan.

You have to take a deep dive into the ancient maps to question if Rome knew of Japan. Up until recently historians would say that it was impossible but in 2016 ten 4th century Roman coins turned up in the Japanese Island of Okinawa. Ever since then Historians have been asking the question of whether or not Rome knew of Japan.

Here at The History Ace I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing around the web.

Further, you can check out some of the other articles below.

Sincerely,

Nick